Court Reverses Grant of New Trial, Affirms Defense Verdict for Electrical Product Manufacturer

Court of Appeal of California, First Appellate District, June 29, 2020

In Estes v. Eaton Corp., 2020 Cal. App. LEXIS 594, the Court of Appeal of California, First Appellate District reversed an order granting a new trial, and affirmed a defense verdict for Eaton Corporation. In this case, the jury heard the trial court case, and returned a defense verdict. However, the trial court granted the plaintiff a new trial on the ground of insufficient evidence. Eaton appealed the new trial order on multiple grounds, with the successor to the now deceased plaintiff cross-appealing the jury’s verdict. The court reversed the order granting a new trial and rejected the plaintiff’s appeal of the jury verdict.

Norman Estes worked as an electrician in two Bay Area naval shipyards from approximately 1966 to 1974. The court held that there was undisputed evidence that Mr. Estes was exposed to “snowstorms” of asbestos dust, from both his own work and a wide variety of maintenance and repair activities carried out in his vicinity by other shipyard workers. Mr. Estes stipulated that he was exposed to asbestos-containing products manufactured or supplied to the Navy by approximately 50 companies.

With regards to Eaton, Mr. Estes claimed asbestos exposure from arc chutes manufactured by Eaton’s predecessor, Cutler Hammer. Eaton made numerous arguments and presented five expert witnesses on liability, one damages expert and four lay witnesses. The jury deliberated for less than a day, and returned a defense verdict in Eaton’s favor. Mr. Estes moved both for JNOV and for a new trial. The JNOV motion was denied, but the court granted the motion for new trial.

Eaton challenged the new trial motion, on three grounds, with the sole argument considered by the court that the trial court did not comply with its mandatory, statutory duty to explain its reasoning. California Supreme Court precedent has explained that when a new trial is granted on the ground of insufficient evidence, the trial judge’s specification of reasons must briefly identify the potion of the record which convinces the judge that the court or jury should have reached a different verdict or decision. After significant arguments from Mr. Estes’ counsel, the court held that the trial court did not adequately explain its reasoning and that its order defies meaningful review. Upon denying Mr. Estes’ cross-appeal, the court reversed the grant of a new trial, and affirmed the judgment from the jury verdict.